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New Florida laws creating 'confusion' and 'chaos' in schools, says teachers' union president

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Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association president, said he is concerned with language and guidance from the Florida Department of Education. He wants discussion about Florida's schools to return to what he deems the important issues: teacher and bus driver shortages.

The passage of the Stop Woke Act and Parental Rights in Education laws are causing some educators to "err on the side of caution," says Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association.

Most schoolchildren across Florida began classes last week, as districts are still trying to work out what teachers in Florida can and cannot say, in order to avoid lawsuits by parents after the passage of the The Parental Rights in Education law and the Stop Woke Act, which took effect in July.

WUSF's Kerry Sheridan spoke with Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, about how the state's largest teachers' union is trying to help its members navigate the new terrain.

These laws have vague language, and allow for parents to pursue legal action, which creates a lot of uncertainty for teachers and school leaders. How are you advising them at this time?

"What we're telling our teachers, first and foremost is they have an obligation, they have an ethical and moral obligation here in the state of Florida, to make sure that every kid is welcomed, is safe, is secure, is loved, is supported, and is getting the education they deserve, and need. And they should absolutely continue to do that. Nothing changes in that sense. These laws are meant to create confusion, are meant to create chaos, and they are doing that. But overwhelmingly parents see these laws as distractions away from what matters, and we should focus on what matters, which is our kids."

I talked to a history teacher who is concerned about the removal of key parts of history from next year's civics standards, like landmark cases like Roe v Wade, and Texas v Johnson -- a case that established that flag burning is a protected form of speech. These things won't be in the standards in 2023-24. Does that mean you can't teach it, if it's not in the standards? Are you facing questions like that from teachers?

"Yeah, I think there's a lot of concern, as it relates to the rewrite of the civics and social studies standards, what's being left out, the whitewashing of our history. We've heard from people who say, they talk about how Washington and Jefferson were opposed to slavery without talking about that they owned slaves. Those are the kinds of concerns and questions yes, we're absolutely getting from our members.

"I think what we have to realize is that right now, what we should be doing as a community as people who support public schools, is we should be talking to everyone running for office, whether it's school board, whether it's statehouse or state senate, the governor's mansion, and we should ask them, what are they doing right now to address the massive teacher and staff shortage? Why? Because the teacher and staff shortage is the greatest threat to the education of our children.

"If we don't have bus drivers to get kids to school on time, kids are missing out on the education they deserve and need. If we don't have teachers in the classroom, and we currently have between 6,000 and 8,000 teacher vacancies in the state of Florida, when school has already started in most of this state. If we don't fill those teaching positions, kids are missing out on the education they deserve and need."

What about things like requiring permission slips to take out any book from a library, or that book fairs are canceled? Maybe some of these concerns I'm hearing are due to rumors that are going around. Is the union coming out and saying no, the libraries are open, or that certain things are not in the law, or anything like that?

"Yeah, so you know, what's not in the law is the classroom books, the classroom books that teachers have, but districts are erring on the side of caution. They're worried about being sued. They're worried about accusations being made against the district or their employees, teachers and staff. So we do see districts trying to err on the side of caution. Yes, we've given out advice that, you know, we had one situation where a teacher was told that they're not allowed to have a pride flag in the classroom. And in fact, the state in the motion to dismiss the lawsuit that was brought against them for House Bill 1557. They said teachers could have pride flags in the classroom.

"So we've actually used that and said, 'No, that's not correct.' So there is an overreaction. Because of the concern that's out there, because of the confusion and chaos, there is no direction from the state right now, other than this motion to dismiss. And I think, again, I'm just going to come back to, this is why elections matter. And we can solve all of this, we can change all of this by everyone getting out and voting in the August 23 primary when school board elections will occur. It doesn't matter if you're Republican, Democrat, no party affiliation, everyone votes in school board elections, they're nonpartisan elections, get out and vote, and vote for people who are going to bring sanity to our schools."

And since the Parental Rights Law spells out that parents can take legal action for any perceived violation of the law, some teachers are worried about facing those kinds of lawsuits, and would they have to pay their own legal fees?

"No. If they are a member of the union, we would be there for them, and we will have our members' backs. There's no question about that. Our national unions have already said it, we have said it. You know, if our members are teaching kids the content that they are required to cover, which they're obligated to cover under the Code of Ethics here in the state of Florida, we will have their back.

"And there are court challenges going on right now over a lot of what the state of Florida is trying to implement. And those pork and keep in mind, some of those court challenges are outside of public education, because some of this legislation not only impacts our public schools, impacts private work places, right, like Disney, and other companies who operate in the state of Florida.

"And so there are a lot of court cases out there right now. And I think some of this as it moves through the court is going to create and allow for some more clarity around all of this. But I think rightfully so a lot of educators are concerned with the direction that our state is going in essentially trying to rewrite history."

Do you have any teachers who are in support of these laws or who are okay with all these changes?

"Yeah, I'm sure there are, right? I mean, at the end of the day, there are people who who are buying some of this extremist conversation that's happening. They may think it's not happening. They know it's not happening in their classroom, but they'll say maybe it's happening somewhere else. But the reality of it is all of this legislation was based on lies was based on false pretense, and was done for political purposes. And at the end of the day, what we hear from parents what we hear from all, almost all of our members is politics has no place in the decisions being made in our public schools."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.